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What Is "International Law" and How Does It Affect Me?

Often in the news one hears about treaties between nations, or someone may refer to the impact of “international law” on a particular problem. The following questions and answers help define what is meant by “international law” and how it might affect ordinary persons or businesses.

Q: What is “international law”?
 The only true “international laws” (laws that apply across national boundaries) are treaties negotiated and ratified by the governments of the participating nations. Generally, to form a treaty, participating nations take the following steps:
• participating countries delegate representatives to negotiate with each other about the terms of the treaty;
• the delegates propose a finalized treaty for ratification; and
• an agreed-upon number of participating countries (specified in the negotiations) ratify the treaty. Treaties apply only to those nations that have formally ratified them. Some treaties (called “multilateral treaties”) apply to many nations, and others apply to a more limited number of nations.

Q: What are some examples of multilateral treaties?
A recent example is the proposed treaty on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, known as the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. The United States did not ratify the Kyoto treaty. However, there are other multilateral treaties that the U.S. has ratified and that are in force. These include:  the 1980 United Nations Convention on the International Sale of Goods (known as the “Vienna Sales Convention”); the 1958 New York Convention on Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards; and the 1961 Hague Convention Abolishing The Requirement Of Legalization For Foreign Public Documents.

Q: What are some examples of treaties involving only a few participating countries?
Examples of these would include treaties among neighboring countries or whole regions to gradually lift restrictions on trade in goods and services and movement of people, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among Canada, Mexico and the United States. Other examples include so-called “tax treaties,” in which two countries agree upon rules for how income earned by individuals and firms of one country will be taxed in the other country. Such treaties also often provide rules for how social security retirement benefits will be treated for each nation's citizens who go to work in the other country.
Q: What other international laws are there?
Each country normally has laws and rules applying to its citizens in their international dealings, and to citizens of other nations who travel, do business in, or otherwise come within the legal jurisdiction of that country. Examples of such laws include:  laws affecting investment in a country by foreign persons and companies; laws placing tariffs and other restrictions on imports or exports; and laws regulating the immigration of workers.

Q: What if I have a claim against someone in another country?
Generally, a legal claim must be brought in the country most closely related to the claim and under that country’s laws. However, the rules for determining which country’s laws will apply, and where the dispute will be litigated, can be complicated. The answers will depend on where the activity giving rise to the claim took place and where the parties are located. 

Q: Can you give an example?
Say you travel to a foreign country and purchase a radio in a shop. As soon as you get back home, the radio stops working, and you want your money back. Since you bought the radio abroad, you most likely will have to pursue your claim (against the shop owner or the radio manufacturer) in the country where you bought the radio and under that country’s laws. But what if, instead, you ordered the radio by mail from the same foreign shop after having seen it advertised in an Ohio magazine? Since the local advertisement suggests that the shop offers the radio for sale in the U.S., you may be able to pursue your claim in the U.S. and under U.S. law.

Q: What if I inherit property in another country?
Generally, you will need to find a good lawyer in that country to assist you in complying with the laws there concerning transfers and bequests of property upon death.


Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). This article was prepared by Frank D. Chaiken, an attorney in the Cincinnati office of Thompson Hine LLP. 

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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